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Heinrich questions NPS officials on maintenance backlog

The primary elevators at Carlsbad Caverns National Park went back into service last week after a three-year modernization project following a breakdown in 2015.

Next, the park planned to rebuild the small secondary, or backup, elevators which were used during the shutdown of the primary system.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) questioned officials with the National Park Service on the project and the NPS’ maintenance backlog – and its effects on nearby, rural economies.

The questions came during a Wednesday legislative hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.

Heinrich first addressed Lena McDowall, deputy director of management and administration for the NPS and U.S. Department of Interior.

McDowall said the secondary elevator project is slated for 2021, at a cost of about $19 million.

“That will be a big project,” she said. “It is in our line item construction list for 2021 at this point.”

Heinrich applauded the completion of the primary elevator project, but cautioned that the backup elevators have proven unreliable in recent years, and must be upgraded.

While the primary elevators were offline, the secondary system suffered breakdowns, forcing visitors to take the natural entrance into the Caverns.

In March, a family from Michigan were stranded for hours in a secondary elevator car when it broke down about 740 feet underground.

The NPS’ deferred maintenance must be addressed to the benefit of the rural communities, Heinrich said, that host many national parks and monuments.

“I was really excited to see the primary elevators at Carlsbad Caverns go back into service last week. That was the first time since 2015, as you may know. However, our secondary elevators have also proven to be unreliable, due to many decades of deferred maintenance," Heinrich said.

“The reality here is that deferred maintenance is debt. When you choose not to invest in things, it is going to cost you more later. It should be reflected in our balance sheet as such.”

He said national parks are essential economic drivers for the communities that host them.

“When we have these park service jewels that are really, truly the economic engines of rural communities across the west, of communities all over the country in both rural and urban areas, they deserve for us to do something about this.”

Rural communities such as Carlsbad especially rely on national parks for tourism – a major driver of rural economies, Heinrich said.

"How does the park’s maintenance backlog specifically affect rural communities, and how does it impact the economies of our gateway communities?" Heinrich said.

Marcia Argust, director of Pew Charitable Trust’s Restore America’s Parks program, pointed to jobs as the answer.

She said Pew commissioned a study last year that showed that projects in the NPS maintenance backlog could represent 110,000 infrastructure-related jobs across the country.

Parks bring about 306,000 jobs annually, records show.

“A number of our parks are certainly in rural communities or rural areas as you note,” she said to Heinrich. “A number of those are larger parks. Parks are certainly an economic engine.

"Jobs in rural communities, very important. Addressing deferred maintenance, it’s important to preserving historic resources, landscape resources, but also important to the economy.”